Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 7

Where we left off yesterday: Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng.

Chinese fiction has particular heroes/protagonists. There is the Confucian rebel, a muscle-man, who might also be a scholar. Such a hero is Song Jiang in the Shui Hu Chuan. Song is the model of filial piety, risking his life to see that his father is well and supplied with all the things he needs. In spite of his disappointment in government and its officials, when the emperor asks Song Jiang to lead his gang against the enemies of China, the Tartars, Song Jiang does what he emperor requests. This kind of hero is the kind of hero Western readers can understand and appreciate.

Bao-yu, the hero in Hong Lou Meng, is a different type, but such characters do exist in the western tradition. He is an intelligent, pleasant, interesting man who sees nothing of value in what society thinks is important. He is “disillusioned” in the Buddhist/Taoist sense of the word. Bao-yu is, in fact, an immortal and knows nothing on the earth is permanent, that all things pass away, which makes it difficult for him to adapt even though he doesn’t remember his origins as an unneeded piece of jade used to build the sky. All he knows is that what everyone wants him to do seems stupid and futile. His actions look like rebellion against the family system and Confucian scholarship. To Jia-Zheng, Bao-yu’s father and honorable official, and to the rest of his human family, Bao-yu seems lazy because he doesn’t apply himself to studying the things he should. In hopes that Bao-yu’s life won’t be a total disgrace, Jia-Zheng takes him to the schoolmaster:

I have come here today,” he [Bao-yu’s father] began, “because I felt the need to entrust my son to you personally, and with a few words of instruction. He is no longer a child, and if he is to shoulder his responsibilities and earn a place in the world, it is high time he applied himself conscientiously to preparing for his exams. At home, he spends all his time idling about in the company of children. His verses, the only field in which he has acquired any competence, are for the most part turgid juvenilia at their best, romantic trifles, devoid of substance… For the present I would humbly suggest a course of reading and exegesis of primary scriptural texts, and plenty of compositions. If he should show the least sign of being a recalcitrant pupil, I earnestly beseech you to take him in hand and in so doing to save him from a shallow and wasted life.

On this note he rose, and with a bow and a few parting remarks, took his leave… when [the teacher] returned to the classroom, Bao-yu was already sitting at a small rosewood desk in the southwest corner of the room, by the window. He had two sets of texts and a meagre-looking volume of model compositions stacked in a pile on his right… “We must see to it that you apply yourself with zeal from now on.” (Cao Xueqin, Hong Lou Meng)

What does Bao-yu really think of all this? Well, considering that Bao-yu is essentially a piece of jade, not a mortal, his feeling that the whole thing is stupid seems reasonable. But, unlike the reader, the other characters in the story don’t know Bao-yu’s true identity. This creates an interesting tension within the story. The family’s reactions illustrate an idea which had long existed in Chinese life and is one of the reasons for the schism between fiction and “literature.” Important things are serious; anything that is not serious cannot be important. 

Bao-yu, a being outside the “red dust” (the transient reality in which sentient beings live), is able to see, with the eyes of an immortal, what is and what is not important. The scholarly life is not important. What’s important is the here and now and doing what he likes. He knows that the people he knows and loves are fated to pass out of his life soon and forever which it’s important for him to spend every possible moment with them.

Carved onto the rejected jade from which Bao-yu originally came is this verse:

Unfit to mend the azure sky,
I passed some years on earth to no avail;
My life in both worlds is recorded here;
Whom can I ask to pass on this romantic tale?

Hong Lou Meng (trans. Gladys Yang)

The wonder of it is that now Hong Lou Meng is, itself, an object of intense scholarship. My favorite in this short and random list is, “Towards a New Paradigm of Redology.”

I’m kind of sorry younger Martha didn’t finish this project, but I can see why. It’s huge and her credibility was/is questionable.

I’m stopping here. Looking forward at the last two pages of this thing, I see it just peters out. I wonder where it all went. I remember writing about the anti-Japanese war and the May Fourth Movement and the struggle to create a written Chinese language that could be taught more easily to people, but it’s no where to be found. Could I start writing it now? I don’t know. The world has moved on and I have moved on, too. The only thing from this I understand better than I did at 36 is that Bao-yu was right, but so were a lot of other guys all around the world from many generations… “Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why: drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…” The Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam.

The jade pendant in the featured photo was a gift from a student in San Diego, the first student from the PRC that I taught in the US. The words are, “Bamboo whispers peace.” I felt very guilty about this gift and gave her a Navajo pendant made of Montana moss agate. There’s nothing kenspeckle about any of this, I’m afraid.

And now I’ve found more… Women in Chinese fiction and Pearl Buck. Shui Hu Chuan. More. I think it can all wait forever or until I get interested again.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 6

Here’s where we left off yesterday: Imagine a civil service system which awarded government positions of the highest responsibility to those who were able to do well on exams based only on Plato’s Republic, whether or not they showed any aptitude or interest in such positions. If you did not spend all your time studying former successful examinations, which had been published in books and capably commented upon by other scholars, and if you didn’t practice the essay yourself, you would be considered foolish, degenerate, lazy, decadent, irresponsible, etc.

The Scholars finds many reasons why a conscientious person would avoid the system, none of them involving civil disobedience. “Should talented men serve a corrupt government?” is the first question the book approaches. The other question is simply, “Isn’t there more to life than this?” and in answer to this question, the book begins with stories about old, old men who finally pass the lowest level of the examination. It’s too late for them to have done anything good for their families; they failed in their youth, their parents are long dead, the honor which accrues accrues only to their parent’s spirit tablets. Yet, the society has become so strange that in the eyes of the satirist, Wu Jingzu, that honor to the dead is worth more than sustenance for the living.

Wu Jingzu’s point is that the examination system kept the minds of the Chinese people in the past. Language was a serious problem in that everything a Confucian scholar wrote had to be written in an archaic Chinese not the language with which they conducted their dailey affairs. Hu-Shih, diplomat to the United States for the Republic of China under Chong Shan (Sun Yat-Sen), president of Beijing University and a contemporary of Pearl Buck and one of the pioneers of language reform in China, remarked that it was absurd to call a “sedan-chair” a “chariot” when “chariots” were no longer used and the ‘sedan chair” or “rickshaw” were the common ways people got around. 

However immortal and timeless Confucian thought might be, Confucian scholarship — as it was approached — was truly backward looking and became a serious problem at the end of the nineteenth century when the Ching Dynasty was falling apart and foreigners were everywhere in China, preaching, teaching, traveling, trading — innocently and aggressively undermining traditional Chinese values. 

Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng. (To be continued, a little…)

Today’s prompt, “spuddle,” sums it up very well, not only the efforts of the characters in these novels who strive to pass exams and never do but also this project of mine. Spuddle means, “(obsolete) To work ineffectively; to work hard but achieve nothing”

I’ve been able to get around my numerous failures by accepting the reality that no one cares.

And even more: the point of life (which I didn’t understand for a long long long time) is set out clearly in Ecclesiastes 3. No, not the “turn turn turn” stuff, but this:

11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is no good in them (the things God has made), but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. 13 And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

With this project, at some point back then, I got the idea that pursuing a PhD might be the ticket to having the chance to work full time on the project. I sent myself in that direction, but I had no conviction. I had to retake the Graduate Record Exam — GRE of Literature in English — because it had been more than ten years since I’d taken it to get into grad school to work on my MA. Examination, right? 😀

At 8 am I showed up in a classroom at San Diego State for my exam. I was one of the older people in the room — nearly 40! Most were in their early 20s. It had been a long time since I’d had a survey course on anything. I’d taught one, but that was to a bunch of Chinese students and from a book I put together myself designed for THOSE kids. So, I sat down, followed the proctor’s instructions about opening the book and beginning.

It didn’t seem that difficult, which surprised me. Every time we had a break, though, the proctor told us how stupid and futile this whole activity was. His first comment, before we even started, was “Why are you doing this? There are no jobs. You’re going to throw away some of the best years of your life studying something that won’t get you anywhere. These questions are irrelevant. This isn’t what literature is.” His remarks throughout the exam were along those lines and, as time proved, he was right. There was no reason at all for me (or anyone) to pursue a PhD in English. Teaching jobs were becoming almost exclusively part-time; tenured jobs were vanishing. I had friends with PhDs from very prestigious schools who, like me, were “freeway flyers,” driving miles between community colleges to teach enough classes to hold body and soul together. I ended up luckier than most with a contract lecturer position at San Diego State, but that’s much, much, later.

Finally, the tedium of the test and the arguments of the proctor convinced me that a PhD in English was the last thing I wanted. I hadn’t liked graduate school that much the first time, though, fortunately, I’d had a full scholarship. Two more years and several tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of studying literary criticism? No. I stood up 3/4 of the way through, as we were answering the questions on literary criticism, and turned in my paper. “Thanks,” I said.

“Are you finished?”

“Oh yeah. Have a good day.”

It turned out that my final grade was high enough that UCSD (University of California San Diego) accepted me. It’s a science-oriented university, but it had the only local PhD program in literature. I said, “No thanks.” I don’t know what I might have done if they’d offered to pay my way. I don’t think I’d have done well.

Here’s a sample question:

Many things came between me and finishing this project. More teaching hours and more responsibility at the language school where I worked. Marital problems. Loss of focus. Getting a dog and discovering a great place to hike. Anyway, looking ahead at what I have in front of me, four typed pages, and what seems to be the end of the project. Is it a “spuddle”?

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 5

Yesterday we left off here: Classical Chinese fiction, especially The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng, criticizes the system for its many failings and absurdities, yet, the Chinese system provided the inspiration for the British Civil Service Exam and its child, the United States Civil Service Exam.  

If Fiction Wasn’t Literature in China, What Was? Part II

[The thousands of years old Chinese examination system] might be one of the most difficult things for a modern western reader to understand, but Pearl Buck had plenty to say about this:

“…In centuries past in China the novel was not considered literature. Confucius makes it quite plain that a story is worthless for its own sake, and only of value when it teaches or illustrates a moral principle. No reputable scholar in old days would write a novel or be seen reading one, and not until the comparatively late date of Chien Lung in the 18th century was fiction given a formal place in national literature. There are various reasons for this disapproval of fiction.

As I said, Confucius set his seal against it; it (fiction) was supposed to have an immoral influence and turn the mind away from philosophy and virtue and make it soft. Practically it had no value to the reader, for the examinations of the state were in the classical literature, and the preparation for these examinations was so vast that it took all the years of a man’s life, and the serious and ambitious man could not afford to divert himself. Moreover, the successful passing of these examinations was the only way for an able man to rise, and he had necessarily to exclude anything which did not help him directly to his aim. Instead, therefore, of finding some of the acutest and most sensitive and powerful minds turning to the novel as a means of expression as we find in English novel history, in China we find such minds occupying themselves in the study of classics and making commentaries upon them.”

(Pearl Buck pretty sure but not absolutely this came from the Nobel Prize Lecture)

It’s pretty difficult (for me) to find a parallel in Western culture, but imagine Plato’s Republic and imagine having to read it in Attic Greek which is not the language spoken by anyone in your world. This would be the ONLY book you would be encourage to read. From certain important passages you would be expected to write essays commenting on the content of these passages. To be an educated person, you would be educated in THIS book. Any other philosophy would be considered inferior or corrupt. Imagine that your success in life, government, business, family relations, everything, depended on examinations on which you write commentaries based on remarks from this work. Imagine writing your thoughts in an essay form as codified and as the structure of a Petrachan sonnet. Imagine an examination so difficult that it could take your whole lifetime to pass. This passage is from the novel, The Scholars, a satirical novel written in 1750 by Wu Jingzu:

The third examination was for candidates from Nanhai and Panyu Counties (these are in Guangdong Province). Commissioner Chou (who had passed the exam after he was sixty years old) sat in the hall and watched the candidates crowing in. There were young and old, handsome and homely, smart and shabby men among them The last candidate was thin and sallow, had a grizzled beard and was wearing an old felt hat. Kwangtung (Guangdong) had a warm climate, still this was the twelfth month, and this candidate wore only a linen gown, so he was shivering with cold as he took his paper and went to his cell. (I lived in Guangdong and I was never colder in my life than in winter there.) Chou Chin made a mental note of this before sealing up their doors. During the first interval, from his seat at the head of the hall, he watched this candidate in the linen gown come up to hand in his paper. The man’s clothes were so threadbare that a few more holes had appeared since he went into the cell. Commissioner Chou referred to the registrar of names and asked, “You are Fan Chin, aren’t you?”

Kneeling, Fan Chin answered, ‘Yes, Your Excellency.”

“How old are you this year?”

“I gave my age as thirty. Actually, I am fifty-four.”

“How many times have you taken the examination?”

“I first went in for it when I was twenty, and I have taken it over twenty times since then.”

“How is it you have never passed?”

“My essays are too poor,” replied Fan Chin. 

Wu Jingzu The Scholars

Imagine a civil service system which awarded government positions of the highest responsibility to those who were able to do well on exams based only on Plato’s Republic, whether or not they showed any aptitude or interest in such positions. If you did not spend all your time studying former successful examinations, which had been published in books and capably commented upon by other scholars, and if you didn’t practice the essay yourself, you would be considered foolish, degenerate, lazy, decadent, irresponsible, etc. (To be continued…) 

The exam was tied up in so much of Chinese culture. If a person NEVER passed he brought shame on his family, past, present and future. It was the ONLY way for a man to advance in society. Tremendous consequences and rewards — even for the future of the family — were tied to it.

As I typed this yesterday I had to laugh at my 36 year old person’s reference to Plato’s Republic. 36 year old Martha had not yet taught composition at the college and university level. She had not realized the tremendous power and utility of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. She didn’t know that she would base ENTIRE composition classes on that ONE essay (and its remakes through time including The Matrix and The Lion King). She didn’t know that there is, probably, only a finite number of stories humans ever come up with and that the struggle to just SEE something as it is is a common — and important — archetype.

Once, during my future career (13 years later?) teaching “The Allegory of the Cave,” a student — Chris — said, “Why are you making us read this old stuff?”
I said, “It’s important. It’s something we all struggle with.”
“No it isn’t. We’re living NOW!!!”
“I know. Just write the paper, OK?”

WEEKS maybe MONTHS later, in the early evening, I was walking across the campus at San Diego State. I heard someone behind me calling out, “Dude! Dude! Wait, DUDE!” Whoever “Dude” was, it wasn’t me. The running feet got closer and closer. Someone grabbed my Levis jacket. “Dude! Dude!” I turned to see the disgruntled student, Chris.

“What’s up?”

“DUDE!!! The ‘Allegory of the Cave’? Dude, that’s my LIFE.”

“It’s all our lives, Chris.”

Which makes me think that there might be a little something in those old texts. During Mao, Confucianism was repressed as something “old,” but it is now reborn and alive and well in China and there are even Confucian schools here in the US now. Maybe it wasn’t the exam; maybe it was the consequences attached to it.

I appreciate everyone with the patience to read this stuff. Among the books I brought back from China is The Scholars which I enjoyed a LOT. While the satire isn’t totally accessible to me (clearly) some of it is. It’s also beautifully illustrated.

Probably there will be some kind of celebration when I finish typing this — but who knows where I might find more of it!

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, part 4

And so we commence the next chapter in the Pearl Buck project… Here goes

If Fiction Wasn’t Literature in China, What Was?

Lavish expressions may contain abundant truth but fail to direct and drive the meaning home.” 

Lu Chi(261-303) “On Literature,” Anthology of Chinese Literature, ed. Cyril Birch)

Until the early twentieth century, “real” literature in China was essays and commentaries based on The Four Books or The Five Classics the authoritative Concucian texts from the 3rd century. written around 300 ce. Students who mastered these ancient texts, and mastered the technique of writing the “eight-legged” essay, would pass the various levels of civil service examinations and could become government officials.

Ideally, this was an egalitarian system of putting people into government jobs. Those who entered the examination were not necessarily wealthy, nor were they necessarily sons of well-educated men. The Books were available to everyone (who could read). The precepts taught in the Books informed the thoughts of all Chinese.

The first level of exam, the Municipal Exam, was offered frequently in major cities. The exam itself was a grueling experience. Scholars were locked in “cells” for hours while they wrote their answers. At various breaks, they turned in parts of their answers to the examiner, a scholar who had passed one or two levels of examinations. Many talented men (who would be good leaders) never passed and, naturally many untalented men did pass. As these were human beings in government, there was a certain amount of corruption in the process leading to it being frequently reformed. 

Classical Chinese fiction, especially The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng, criticizes the system for its many failings and absurdities, yet, the Chinese system provided the inspiration for the British Civil Service Exam and its child, the United States Civil Service Exam.  

This attitude isn’t unique to China. Even Aristotle had to write a defense of the theater back in the day. I suppose there has always been a tension between the “serious” (which is something that gets us somewhere) and the “frivolous” (that which ‘merely’ entertains us). We’re living in a strange twilight zone in which many people can’t discriminate between entertainment and legitimate information. Perhaps that’s what everyone was concerned about over the eons.

Yesterday I held a conference with myself and decided it was time to clean out the garage, so I had the glorious experience of cleaning out junk. It’s difficult to be sufficiently rhapsodic about this experience but it yielded a few wonders. I found my Chinese language textbooks, a “fanzine” my brother and his friends produced in high school using silk-screen and a mimeograph machine, and my “data base” of quotations for the Pearl Buck project (featured photo and below).

It is a very complex project — this is only one set of note cards. There’s another for each book — an annotated bibliography — I read that goes into the project.

I was happy to find my Chinese language texts but sad to realize that once upon a time, I could do this:

It really is “use it or lose it.” I can still understand spoken Mandarin well enough to know when the subtitles don’t match in a movie, but that I could ever read this well? And this is only the middle of the book and there are two books.


Seven years ago yesterday I closed the deal on my little house here in Monte Vista, Colorado and I moved in seven years ago today. Well, I KIND of moved in. Lily T. Wolf, Dusty and Mindy T. Dogs and I drove down from the cabin in South Fork where we’d stayed for a month while I found a house. I bought the sofa with the house, so when we walked in, the house wasn’t totally empty.

The dogs liked it right off. They were happy to have their own yard. I immediately saw two necessities; a lamp for the living room and a toaster oven. Yeah, I had brand new appliances (including the cheap fragile stove I’ve written about at noisome length here) but what I needed was a toaster oven and food. I took my first drive to Alamosa as a home owner and went to Walmart. I didn’t know where anything was yet. I got my lamp and my toaster oven, the box of which sufficed as a little table until my furniture arrived. I’d hooked up Internet. One of the treasures I’d driven over the mountains with was one of my grandmother’s quilts. I figured Mindy and I would sleep on the sofa that night with my down parka as a pillow.

There was a little rug in the house and Lily — my sixteen year old Siberian husky — found it quickly. When the floor heater kicked on — be still my heart! — I moved the little rug to a spot where Lily would be warm. I’d lived the previous 11 years with a wood stove which was great, but it did involve going outside and bringing in wood. Suddenly I had a furnace that responded to its own imperatives to warm the room. I still love that thing.

It was an enormous adventure, driving three big dogs across the desert and over the mountains to a town I’d only seen once in which I didn’t know anyone, but it was also wonderful. For some reason I have not driven back over Wolf Creek Pass. I don’t know why, but I think that a little compartment in my brain says to stay on THIS side or I’ll have to do all of that again!

All three of my dauntless comrades have died. Mindy was probably 10, Dusty was 9, and Lily was 16 when we made that trip. All of them loved it here. Lily even got to experience ONE legit Colorado snow storm. She stayed outside walking, blind and aimless, in the snow until I went out and brought her in before she exhausted herself. She was so happy. Mindy? Mindy was a little Buddha at peace anywhere she went with the magical power to make everyone she met feel better. Dusty — one of the world’s most anxious and scary barky dogs, calmed down and embraced his friendly, exuberant, sweet nature. He knew he didn’t have anything to be afraid of and made friends. From the experience of that move, I learned how tightly humans and dogs can bond. For the first five months I lived here, I didn’t really talk to anyone. That changed, and all three dogs welcomed friends to our house and Mindy became the best friend of Casey, an autistic man who used to walk to the Dairy Queen every day and would stop to visit her in the front yard.

The euphoria of finding home has never gone away. Yesterday, after I got my flu shot, Teddy Bear T. Dog and I went out to the Refuge to watch raptors, hope for cranes, greet tourists and savor the beauty of Heaven.

Footnote: Not sure if you would like to read more Chinese lit./Pearl Buck stuff. Please let me know. I’m still typing it up and I think I’ve figured out where 36 year old Martha was going with it. I’ve also realized why she stopped. After hoping all her life for a dog of her own that she could keep, she got a dog — Truffle! — and discovered Mission Trails Regional Park. ❤

Truffle at Mission Trails

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, Part 3

Where we left off yesterday: “Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Many critics look at the changes in the approach to fiction as a progressive thing, beginning, in all cultures, with a story told by one person to another person. The story might be fiction, but is just as likely to be a true story, or a true story that evolved into a legend. Then, there someone with a pen, stylus, stick, hammer and chisel and some surface (wax, stone, papyrus, whatever) who writes these stories down just as they’re told. Maybe they’re eventually printed (as in China) and story tellers can buy these printed stories and use them to tell their stories better, to help them remember all the episodes and to learn new stories. Then, perhaps someone else with writing tools or a printer will sit down and allow his mind to act imaginatively on the old tale as it’s told. Yet, he retains in the structure of his revision the structure of the original oral story. It accrues, simply by being written, a kind of authority the oral tale cannot possess. 

From this comes the completely imaginative novel which might still be written in the style of the oral story, or letters, sermon, poem, opera, epic, ballad. From there some other person will realize that there are many new and different things he can do; that this written fiction is a completely new form, not necessarily related at all to an oral story. Presumably, all of this “progress” is related to generalized literacy in a civilization. A nation without a literate population has little use for printed stories. 

In China, the oral tradition endured, and in super-modern China, teahouses with story-tellers have enjoyed a rebirth of popularity. That said, the persistence of what has been regarded in some cultures by some critics is considered a “backward” literary form, has made it difficult for modern Chinse scholars to reconcile the Chinese tradition to the Western tradition (Martha in 2021 doesn’t know why they should…) which is considered more “sophisticated” and “advanced.” What many scholars view as an evolution of the novel has been stymied somewhat in China because Chinese Communist policy insisted for some time that foreign things and values are bad, and only truly Chinese things are good (notwithstanding a huge Soviet influence on Chinese fiction during the mid-twentieth century). This has led to the (possibly) unreasonable insistence that Shui Hu Chuan is as good as any novel produced in the West. (For what it’s worth, 21st century Martha thinks it might be and thinks this judgement depends on who’s looking…)

As C. T. Hsia said in his introduction to Chinese Classical Fiction:

Whatever the critical fashion in Communist China, it seems to me self-evident that we cannot accord the Chinese novel full critical justice unless, with our due awareness of its special characteristics that can only be fully understood in historical terms, we are prepared to examine it against the Western Novel…The modern reader of fiction…expects a consistent point of view, a unified impression of life as conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention. But, of course, even in Europe the conscious practice of fiction as an art was a late development, and we cannot expect colloquial Chinese fiction, with its humble oral beginnings, to have been designed for the cultivated modern taste. (Hsia)

The general human tendency to regard new things as more developed than old things prejudices us in favor of the new, but maybe the long, episodic novels of old China truly ARE difficult to read, even for Chinese.

After writing continually for five or six weeks, I felt really discouraged and could not continue. All those shallow and stupid novels of interminable length, they really couldn’t get me interested and I haven’t written about them since. (Hsia)

(Twenty-first century Martha has read a few of these interminable novels and they interested me enough to read a couple of them in more than one translation. C.T. Hsia’s education and training was similar to mine [if you don’t make a big deal out of the VERY prestigious schools he attended and at which he taught and the VERY notable exception that he was Chinese.] You can read about him here:

But if art is an imitation of life, isn’t life difficult to read and difficult to follow? Does life have a consistent point of view or “cohesion of design”? If it does, it is not apparent to any of us living our lives.

Because the written novel has lost some of the sensory power and involvement that was part of the oral novel it must simplify itself  so it can be as understandable as the story teller’s tea-house version. The second question involves someone looking at the Classical Chinese story/novel in relation to the Western novel. Is a novel written to tell a story or to illustrate a form? Some modern critics have devalued the story, but Pearl Buck did not. She believed — based on her close relation to Chinese fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s as well as her personal experience — that story is the most important part of a, well, a story. It should teach something, challenge assumptions and be entertaining. She wrote:

No, happily for the Chinese novel, it was not considered by the scholars as literature. Happily, too, for the novelist. Man and book, they were free from the criticisms of these scholars and their requirements of art, their techniques of expression and their talk of literary significance and all that discussion of what is and what is not art as if art were an absolute and not the changing thing it is fluctuating even within decades! The Chinese novel was free. It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar’s art. (Buck, Pearl S., “The Chinese Novel,” Nobel Prize Speech, 1938)

The novel throughout the world has had an interesting history. Once I thought it was a very interesting coincidence that it emerged in various places at the same time, but that wasn’t it. It was simply labeled “the novel” at the same time. The word “novel” itself means “new” like we have gotten to enjoy the company of a novel virus for the past two years.

The first REAL novel in English is considered to be an 18th century product. It’s debated, of course, but it’s generally thought to be Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. When I was in grad school in a course on “The Early Novel,” I was told it was Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Older stories are contenders (because it’s important to be first, right?) including The Monte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory written in 1485.

I have no strong opinion on any of this. My life after China took me into realms of literature that weren’t taught in any school I ever attended. But I have to bless Wikipedia (to which I give $6/year to keep going) for a really cogent and concise discussion of what makes a novel a novel. Here’s everything Wikipedia has to say and it’s pretty much exactly what I learned in graduate school.

Differing definitions of the novel

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. (The article for novel contains a detailed information of the history of the terms “novel” and “romance” and the bodies of texts they defined in a historical perspective.)


  • Critics typically require a novel to have a certain length. This would exclude Oroonoko, arguably a novella.

Content and intent

  • Critics typically require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings such as Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically make a distinction between collections of short stories, even those sharing common themes and settings, and novels per se, which typically has a single protagonist and narrative throughout. This might also lead to the exclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the romance, which has a heroic protagonist and fantastic elements, and the novel, which attempts to present a realistic story. This would, yet again, exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel, in which characters and events stand only for themselves, and so exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub‘.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the picaresque, made up of a connected sequence of episodes, and the novel, which has unity of structure, and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Owing to the influence of Ian Watt‘s seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.

I’ve also been thinking about episodic structure in a novel. It’s really a lot like life.

I was thinking about my friend, Alex, who recently died after suffering Alzheimers for several years. I didn’t know him when he was himself, but what I knew of him I liked very much. Last year he and his wife bought themselves one of my paintings. Each of us lived our whole lives without knowing each other, but then our lives converged to a limited extent and then, at the conclusion, I came home with all of his paints, which judging from the care with which he stored them, meant a lot to him. I thought “out of the thousands of episodes in our lives, the whole thing ended with me cleaning an old tackle box to get the cat pee smell off of it, giving up, and putting the paints with my own.” It might not be over. I took photos of the box as it was given to me and IF the enzymatic cleaner works, I’ll put everything back, meanwhile, I have on my windowsill a carpenter pencil onto which he carved his name. It’s ONE story comprising several episodes. The story could conclude (and might!) with me using Alex’ paints to do a painting of one of his favorite places to climb and giving it to his wife.

The difference between an episodic novel and a collection of short stories is that an episodic novel is ONE story that (apparently) digresses from time-to-time to follow a character. This means that it can jump back and forth in time, sort of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” but it will end in a timely resolution that satisfies every subplot/episode Music does this all the time; a melody can vanish and re-emerge later, changed, maybe, slightly, but carried through an entire symphony. We even name the episodes of a symphony.

Personally, I like the episodic structure, and one of my novels — The Brothers Path —uses it (best-selling writer that I am). :-p I was briefly in a writers’ group at the time and was told by everyone (except the teacher!) NOT to do that. My classmates had totally bought into the arbitrary definition of what a novel is supposed to be. I think the word “novel” needs to be changed; it isn’t “novel” any more.

The review recently posted about As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, about the year I spent teaching in China, said this and it made me very happy. It says:

“There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!” )

The next section in this adventure is about what the Chinese DID revere as literature back in the day, and the day was really long. 36 year old Martha has written about old Chinese examination system, it, itself, and how it was viewed by the writers of Chinese fiction. Please let me know if that interests anyone at all. I am totally capable of writing in stream of tedium, and I don’t want to. 🙂

Here are pretty pictures from Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, 2

Here’s where we left off yesterday: From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life…

A story could be a tool of subversion. China, historically, has practiced a rough form of democracy. If the excesses of an imperial regime became too excessive, if people were taxed too heavily, if the rivers flooded and it seemed nature conspired against the peace and prosperity of the average person, the Chinese considered that Heaven’s mandate had been taken from the Emperor’s family. A new imperial family would always rise out of the ensuing revolution and reform society. More than once the old stories of the bandits in Shui Hu Chuan or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms were used to arouse peasant sentiment against a corrupt ruling house.

The entertainment imperative had a very strong effect on the development of story in China. Where most of the stories from the English oral tradition such as Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight have receded into the rarified world of academia, Chinese classical stories are still very much alive for the Chinese people in written forms that are believed to be close to the “originals.” The “novels,” transcriptions of orally transmitted tales, are still read and loved in the six and seven hundred year-old versions and not by graduate students on the brink of a thesis on some arcane aspect of “Medieval Chinese Literature,” but by everybody from kids to grannies. 

The books retain the qualities of oral fiction with strong plots, essential to story tellers so they can keep the momentum going from day to day. Usually they have an episodic organization rather than a great “unity of design” found in novels which were never part of the oral tradition.

An episodic story structure allows the story teller to interject: “Let’s leave so-and-so for now and see what is happening at such-and-such” if he sees the audience is getting bored. Because of the enduring oral tradition, Chinese fiction retained a certain episodic quality which western novels lost long ago. 

Then, because the story teller interprets the story to his audience, he can create a character with much less descriptive language. Story tellers have their bodies, faces, gestures with which to show a knife being raised into the air or lovers embracing. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more senses than simply reading a story in solitude under a tree somewhere or on a sofa or train. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more of our senses. Sympathetic characters, taken directly out of the oral context, become two dimensional, colorless, flat like paper dolls. 

Watching a ghost story unfold can be really scary, but it’s difficult to write in an equally and immediately frightening way. A written story is more abstract than something being read aloud to us or recited or interpreted dramatically.

In the early 1980s, when I was in China, many places did not have electricity, and it was not reliable in many places that did have it, even where I lived in Guangzhou. Many of the old people would rather spend an evening listening to a story than watching television, which wasn’t dependable anyway. The story teller was an important person in their lives. 

*Liu Shaotang, a twentieth century Chinese novelist, describes one of his childhood writing teachers. In this passage fro “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Liu described the effect of a story teller’s narrative style on his listeners:

At the entrance (to the teahouse) hung a blackboard posted with playbills, announcing that there were two performances every day. The one during the day featured “The Cases of Prefect Bao [Xing]” performed by the celebrated Liu Jingtang, Jr., while the night show, “Strange Tales of Liaozhai,” were recounted by the master storyteller, Zhao Yingpo. Zhao was good at telling ghost stories and his narration was horrible and bloodcurdling. Some, while listening to his performance would, more often than not, be so frightened that they would rather pee in their trousers than pluck of their courage to go outside. Nor did they dare go home without someone to accompany them In a small alley, they would panic at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind. However whenever Zhao performed in this teahouse, under the spell of his mastery, would never miss a chance to listen, even at the risk of peeing their pants once again. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu then illustrates the way the story teller could manipulate his audience to make sure they came back to hear more of the story:

(Bao Xing went out) of the chamber with a teapot in his hand. Walking through the winding corridor, he came to the kitchen. But as soon as he pulled aside the door curtain, he exclaimed “Aiya!” if you want to know what happened next, please come again tomorrow and I’ll explain it in detail. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu Shaotang writes that he was so worried about what happened to Bao Xing, that he missed school the next day to be able to arrive early for the noon time recitation. He arrives just a few minutes late, terrified that he has missed the critical denouement. The story teller is saying:

“Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

* A note on Liu Shaotang: He was born in 1921 which means he would have been THIS little boy during the period Pearl Buck was teaching at Nanjing University. Pearl Buck’s daughter, Carol, was born in 1920. It’s clear from Liu’s description that all his neurons were firing anticipating the resolution to the mystery!

There’s a garden out in front of my house that I have not had any contact with in ages. As far as it’s concerned, I’m over it. I think it’s the drought. I felt all summer that there was something wrong with pouring water on a bunch of flowers lined up against a south-facing wall.

My thoughts went back to the garden belonging to the president of my college (featured photo). His apartment was two floors below ours and he had a rose garden. One of my friends explained what a luxury this was because, during the reign of Chairman Mao gardens like that were, at the very least, severely criticized. Arable land should be used for food. That whole way of thinking seemed to me, later, to be the off shoot of a horrible famine caused by Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s when everyone — peasants, everyone — was put to work making steel leaving only the elderly and children to till the fields. There was mass starvation and no one knows for sure how many people died but estimates go up to 55 million.

China doesn’t have much arable land in comparison to the population, so a drought or flood has always had enormous consequences. There was a famine in China in the 30s and Pearl Buck wrote about it. The US government airlifted food to the Chinese, but it was food the Chinese wouldn’t eat, didn’t even recognize as food. Apparently the US had a surplus of dairy products and was dropping large amounts of cheese. OK, as a cheeseatarian I’d be very happy with that, but the Chinese didn’t make or eat cheese — or much milk. To them it was as if the US was giving them rotten milk. Pearl Buck wrote letters and articles decrying this and telling the government what they SHOULD send. I don’t remember if anything changed because of her out-cry. But, when I was a kid and left something on my plate, the grownups said, “Eat your peas. Think about the starving people in China

Caveat: There is a lot of stuff in this section that I would not write today, but I’m trying not to edit 36 year old Martha too much.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: More on the Oral Tradition

Story Teller with his clapper

Here’s where we left off yesterday: “The story enacted is hundreds of years old. The bandit leader, Song Jiang, and his follower, Wu Sung, are talking in their hideout on the edge of the Liang Shan Marsh. They are speaking Hainanese, a language which no Beijing native would understand. Next to the stage is a projected line of characters; those who cannot understand the actors can read the words.”

The “oldest continuous culture” in the world is really a composite of different cultures, even different ethnic groups. The language that has historically tied China together is its written language. Yet, even in China’s recent history a large percentage of the population was illiterate or just marginally literate. How could such a diverse group have formed a largely unified culture over four thousand years without television? The answer, as Chairman Mao and his followers understood very well, is the traveling story teller. 

During the early years of the twentieth century, when China struggled to redefine itself politically, to throw off feudalism and the Emperor, one of its chief methods was using storytellers. Storytellers told every kind of story — old stories like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and new stories being written by authors such as Lu Hsun, Lao She, Ba Jin, writers who openly criticized the old faily system, religious superstition, the Japanese, the Emperor. Propaganda or news, if put into a story, caught and held the attention of masses of illiterate people and changed China. Earnest, educated, young people travelled from town to town making speeches and telling stories. In the late 1930s and early 1940’s Lao She wrote plays, operas and stories for storytellers expressly to arouse the Chinese people to resist the Japanese invaders. 

It has been a long time since traveling story-tellers existed in the Western World weaving a spell around their listeners. The story-teller was a gateway to a world beyond our ancestors tedious, boring, physically grueling, monotonous lives. For a non-Chinese to truly understand the magic of the traveling Chinese story-teller, it’s helpful to listen to spoken Chinese in any dialect. Most people know that Chinese is a “tonal” language — almost like singing — which means that a person reciting a story is something very special; words are almost sung, strongly inflected and rhythmic, enchanting to listen to even if a person doesn’t understand the words.

When the story teller came into a village, he announced his arrival by banging something. In some places these things wre two bamboo sticks; in the north of China they were two pelvic bones from a large animal. In some places the story teller banged a drum, keeping time to the rhythm of his voice. Everyone would stop what they were doing and run to hear. 

What stories did the story tellers tell? Just like people today, people were interested in stories that made them feel emotions. The audience loved ghost stories, murder mysteries, war stories, love stories — and history. Suspense, romance, intrigue and tales of derring do. 

If the story teller were any good, he would be able to stay in a town or village for a long time, tantalizingly balancing information with suspense, yearning with satisfaction. To keep a roof over his head and soup in his stomach, a story teller had to entertain his audience, but the culture — that is the political and religious arms of the culture, added another requirement. Stories were supposed to be enlightening in some way, to teach a lesson. 

Many stories began with a parable; each chapter or recitation began with a rhyme pointing (sometimes pretty cryptically) to the main reason for telling the tale. 

From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life.

Until I started studying this stuff I didn’t fully understand the relationship between being able to read and freedom. It was a huge long project taking the skill of reading into the narrow mountain valleys of China. Even in the 1980s many of the peasants from whom I bought vegetables in the market in my village couldn’t read or write. That says a lot because my town — Shipai, a village near Guangzhou, now part of a very fancy part of Guangzhou — was not remote and the encircling villages were not a big challenge to reach. At least three generations of hard-working teachers struggled to bring literacy to the peasants. My most cherished friend from that time, an old woman from Hainan, couldn’t really read or write, just a few characters. She was a member of the anti-Japanese resistance during the anti-Japanese war. I wish my Chinese were much better and more literate than it is, but as one of my Chinese friends pointed out, “You do all right, Martha. Look at the Old Mother.” We had illiteracy in common. 🙂

The people who went into the countryside to teach reading to the peasants had incredible obstacles, one of which is the complexity of written Chinese. They developed a simplified Chinese based on colloquial Mandarin — Bai Hua — that was easier to teach and learn. Still, in order to read a newspaper, a person needs to be able to read about 2000 characters — out of 50,000!!!

Those bringing literacy to the peasants also had to overcome a lot of resistance to change and the reality that working in the fields takes all a person’s time, especially in the more remote regions where fields were terraced, accessible only on foot with a buffalo. There was no motorized transport of any kind, a situation that still existed in places when I was there. Chairman Mao was very aware of all this and as his army went through China they built stages in many of the villages where they could perform “stories”. I think I wrote about the literacy thing in this book somewhere, but I don’t know where so maybe this is it. Anyway, it’s pretty scary to think that all a person would know would be what another person would tell him/her.

I couldn’t fit the word “scorch” into this post. 😦


Sometimes in our lives we’re just cruising along living day-to-day, doing OK, enjoying our lives enough, overall fine but not filled with fire and enthusiasm over any of it, just kind of muddling along, unaware and unconscious and something happens that throws our life in front of us so we see it for what it is and we see our achievements for what they are and we feel knocked over with gratitude to the external factors that helped us along but also grateful — proud — of ourselves for what we’ve overcome and who we are. I know this is one of the purposes of events like graduations and maybe even weddings, but when it isn’t tied to any life-measuring moment or something it’s very special. Most of the time I think we humans think in terms of what we hoped to do and didn’t or couldn’t or gave up on, all that, so-called “failures.” For me, anyway, it’s not always easy to see where things are right because sometimes some of the most right things don’t fit the mold, the pattern, the expectations, but they are, for us completely and totally right.

I had such an experience yesterday. I won’t go into the details because HOW I got here doesn’t matter — I think it would be unique for everyone.

But wow. All day today I’ve thought of a couple of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” The poem doesn’t hit me, but the end does. I first read those lines as title of a book I judged for the contest, the memoir of a woman and her husband who’d built schools in Africa. The title of the book is My Wild and Precious Life. It’s a really good book and I recommend it. The poem ends with:

I do know how…to stroll through the fields
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Suddenly, yesterday, it hit me that I couldn’t have done better given the hand I was dealt and the person that I am. I felt so much gratitude for the fates that landed me in that 3 bedroom tract house in Nebraska across from a forest from which I learned who my best friend through life would be. Yesterday I felt fully how much that has meant to me and how well it has served me, still serves me. As I composed that little poem in response to a small challenge, I realized that I have been writing one poem since my very first poem when I was 10. I’ve written other poems, but that has been my poem. Sometime when I’m not so lazy I’ll go find that first poem and transcribe it here. Maybe. 😉

So what will I do with my “one wild and precious life?” I’ll keep going on as I have been. ❤

Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Review of Baby Duck

A long time ago in a nearby land I published a book about my year teaching in China. It was recently reviewed on Book Shine and Read Bows.

Title: As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder
Author:  Martha Kennedy
Publisher:  Free Magic Show Publications

Blurb:  As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is a love story…. My position as a Foreign Expert in English was my first real teaching job in a career that spanned more than thirty years. I could never have imagined China would be a destination in my life, but it was. And at such a moment in history! Chairman Mao had been dead only six years. The evil Gang of Four had been “tried” only the year before. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still close in everyone’s memory, and people feared that the post-Mao moment of comparative freedom was a random blip. Deng Xiao Ping was determined that China would modernize and enter the world as a competitor. Every single penny of foreign exchange that came to China was used to buy technology to further China’s modernization. I was one of those “bits of technology,” too.

Propelled by a consuming wanderlust, I took my ignorance and inexperience with me, and ended up receiving some of life’s great gifts. My students’ diligence, curiosity and courage inspired me, and, in turn, I inspired them. The bridge between our cultures was a shared love of poetry and beautiful language. As for China? China was the great love of my life. 

Review: This memoir, of Martha Kennedy’s time as an English teacher in China, has rightly been described as a love letter to China – the place, the culture, the people.

Martha is the epitome of an innocent abroad, living her dreams and almost naively oblivious to the political concerns and dangers that surround, but luckily never seem to touch, her. Her insight into such things is provided by her older (and wiser) narrative voice, as she shares her memories – complete with letter extracts and photo slides – and puts them into retrospective context for the reader. Any discomforts or inconveniences that Martha does recollect are therefore now viewed through meihua-tinted glasses, and were brushed off at the time with the enthusiasm of a woman keen to embrace every aspect of the experiences offered. 

There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!

Fondly affectionate and spanning almost every aspect of China at the time – language, learning styles, history, religion, poetry, food, chores, housing, tourism – this book gives a wonderful snapshot of a moment in time-and-place, through the eyes of an amateur but extremely enthusiastic sinophile.

Purchase Link: As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder on Amazon

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